Do You Need to Travel to Write Historical Fiction?

Lately some of the articles I've read suggest that historical novelists need to travel to the places they're writing about in order to create a truly accurate story. While I think that traveling to your setting is definitely a plus, not all writers have the means to do so. And depending on what (and when) your setting is, travel might not be all that beneficial. Here are three reasons why:

  1. The place might look completely different now. Odds are that people have continued to live there, which means they've continued to build there. The ancient buildings and city layouts may have been permanently altered or even buried by subsequent development.
  2. The climate might not be the same. If your story is set in 16th-century Britain, and you travel to the UK to get a feel for the climate, you're going to be sorely disappointed. In the 16th century, England and parts of Europe were in the grip of the Little Ice Age. It was colder than it is today, and that's not something you'll be able to experience by going there.
  3. The country might be restricted or dangerous. This is especially true for those of us who write about the Middle East and North Africa. I was fortunate enough to spend a semester in Egypt in 2007, but I wouldn't recommend going there now, and the US government has issued a travel alert for Egypt.

If you aren't going to travel, what are some resources you can use to create an accurate setting? Here are four that I've found helpful:
  1. Old travel memoirs. This can be anything from Herodotus' Histories to 19th-century vacation accounts. I love reading Victorian travel memoirs that have titles like A Thousand Miles up the Nile. Just brace yourself for the casual racism that was not uncommon at the time. And remember that Herodotus got a lot of his information secondhand, though he did travel to many of the places he wrote about. Old guidebooks can also be invaluable.
  2. Old photographs. Like old travel memoirs, these can give you a more accurate idea of the past.
  3. Excavation reports. Sure, they can be dry, and not all of them will be relevant. But you can get a good feel for the layout of a building or a city.
  4. Digital archaeology projects. Sometimes archaeologists take those excavation reports and make a 3-D rendering of the structures, or at least post drawings or photos of models online. One of my favorites is Digital Karnak by UCLA. It tracks the progress of Karnak Temple in Egypt through the centuries.

Despite all of the above, I think there is one very good reason to travel for research. There is nothing quite like the emotional experience of standing where your characters once stood and seeing the things they saw. That's the feeling you want to impart to your reader. And if traveling to your setting will help you do that, then you should travel if you can.

Have you ever traveled for research? Where did you go? Did you find that it helped your writing? What other resources have you found useful?

2 comments:

  1. Totally agree there's nothing like traveling to the place you're writing about. I don't write historical, my novel takes place a few hundred years in the future, but it's a similar situation. Even though I did travel to Wales for research, it's not precisely representative of what conditions are like in my novel. Had to extrapolate and account for war, a rise in temps, and sea level changes.

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    1. Hi L.G., thanks for the comment! I'll bet writing futuristic stories is more difficult than historical in some ways--at least I can refer to memoirs and excavation reports about the way things were. Even though some of the evidence is conflicting, at least it exists and is concrete. I'm glad that you got the chance to go to Wales for your research!

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